Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December Site Update

The final site update of the year, on the final day of the year. (Personally, I'm counting the minutes until 2013 finally leaves for good...)

The previous 6 reviews have been cross-linked and archived on the main site.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey)

Riders of the Purple Sage
Zane Grey
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Western
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Jane Withersteen's father left her a legacy of wealth and respect in 1870's Cottonwoods, a Mormon settlement in the sage-swept deserts of Utah... but now, having befriended the outsider Gentiles and defied church elders by showing affection for the wrong man, she stands on the brink of ruin. The last person she ever thought she'd consider an ally was the legendary Mormon-killer Lassiter, yet when her Gentile friend Bern Venters is threatened by elder Tull, only Lassiter's arrival spares him. As cattle rustlers, church-led conspiracies, and other threats close in on the Withersteen estate, Jane finds herself more and more reliant on the mysterious man, even as she learns the truth behind his violent and vengeful reputation.

REVIEW: This is a book where setting outshines both story and characters by orders of magnitude. The wild deserts and rough canyon country glow on the page, painted bright and bold. Even the tension of the frontier world, with the threat of stampedes and rustlers and religious tensions, takes on a stark and tangible nature. The characters, by comparison, come across as flattened cartoons, their speech and moods melodramatic almost to the point of comedy. The women are universally innocent and soft and in need of masculine protection, while the men are grizzled soldiers in the bloody game of frontier life... even the good guys, who nonetheless crave the salvation of a lady's touch. Even as they wrestled with their own imperfections, they did so in such grandiose manners that it was almost laughable. The worst offender by far was Jane Withersteen, who clings to blind faith long past the point of sympathy or sense simply to prolong her inner angst. Thanks in no small part to her and the rest of the over-the-top cast, the story often stretches credulity, with peculiar meetings and withheld information and impossible coincidences, not to mention a tendency to relay important encounters secondhand to the readers. The whole thing takes on a soap opera sheen at the climax. I enjoyed some of the descriptions, and a few of the action sequences had real tension, but overall I found myself too annoyed by the characters.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Killing Dirty (Peter Clark) - My Review
A Pocket Full of Spells (Ash Stirling) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, December 20, 2013

This Is Not My Hat (Jon Klassen)

This Is Not My Hat
Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A little fish steals a little hat from a fish who was far too big to wear it.

REVIEW: Remind me never to steal a hat from Jon Klassen... As in I Want My Hat Back (reviewed previously), thieves do not fare well in Klassen's world. The illustrations are simple, telling more of the story than the text. It's a very quick read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Catkin (Antonia Barber) - My Review
I Want My Hat Back (Jon Klassen) - My Review
Fairy Dreams (Carol McLean-Carr) - My Review

Friday, December 13, 2013

Magical Roads (Kia Zi Shiru)

Magical Roads
Kia Zi Shiru
5 Times Chaos
Fiction, YA Collection/Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: A boy prepares to leave the safety of mother and home, a girl pushes boundaries without understanding the consequences, a young man reflects on his first family hunting trip, a traditional family vacation takes on deeper meaning... the author shares four short stories in this collection. This title also includes a preview chapter from a longer book.

REVIEW: Yes, I'm on a bit of a short story kick. The holidays are busy, and with so many projects competing for attention, they fit my fragmented concentration better than longer works right now. That said, this isn't a bad little collection, though the author seems to be trying a little too hard for "surprise" twist endings - which is odd, given how heavy-handed the teen sex and pregnancy metaphor was in the tale Hatchling. Two of the stories also seemed to end just before the story proper actually started. As for the preview, I confess I didn't finish reading it, so I cannot comment except to say that I didn't feel, from the offered synopsis, that it would be my cup of cocoa. (I also don't like being force-fed a sales pitch.) I've definitely read worse, though.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Strange Happenings (Avi) - My Review
The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (C. S. Forster) - My Review
Here, There be Dragons (Jane Yolen) - My Review

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dragonfold (Tyrean Martinson)

Tyrean Martinson
Wings of Light
Fiction, YA Collection/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A girl with a strange gift for origami, a one-armed soldier finds a reason to live, a young woman is sold into an interstellar army... these and other tales and poems unfold in this collection.

REVIEW: This might have merited three or three and a half stars, but a few things held it down. First off, many of the stories felt incomplete. Some were actually excerpts from longer works - making this more of a sales pitch than a story collection - but even the stand-alones often left me wishing for closure of some sort, setting up larger arcs or conflicts and simply leaving them hang. The religious bias, even in alternate worlds (which would have no knowledge of the Christian God, let alone Christian songs), grew a little thick now and again, as well. I also found myself nonplussed with many of Martinson's poems. What was here, for the most part, read smoothly, without glaring editing errors or jumbled grammar or other issues. I liked one or two stories, and parts of a few others. I just felt annoyed with the overall lack of resolution, not to mention the excerpt-heavy selection. (If I'd wanted to read incomplete previews, I would've used the "Look Inside!" option on Amazon.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Fifty-One Tales (Lord Dunsany) - My Review
Dragon Poems for Smiletrain.org 2011 (M. R. Mathias) - My Review
The Book of Enchantments (Patricia Wrede) - My Review

Friday, December 6, 2013

How to Get a Billion Dollar Idea (Robin Sacredfire)

How to Get a Billion Dollar Idea
Robin Sacredfire
Nonfiction, Self-Help
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: You see it all the time: someone comes up with a simple idea, and succeeds beyond their wildest dreams. Yet it never seems to happen for you. How can you be the next success story?

REVIEW: Yes, it was free when I downloaded it. No, I wouldn't pay money for what I read. Baffling grammar and circular writing aside, this is just more of the same positive manifestation stuff that everyone and their brother's already selling. Granted, Sacredfire isn't charging through the nose for seminars or workshops, but that doesn't excuse this book for never actually answering its title question, let alone providing anything like a plan for evaluating ideas and pursuing them. Mostly, it tells readers that they simply aren't dreaming hard enough, and thus they have only themselves to blame if they're not rich already.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Simple But Effective Strategies to Improve Yourself (Robert Eastwood) - My Review
Making a Living Without a Job (Barbara J. Winter) - My Review

Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2012 Edition (Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editors)

Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2012 Edition
Liz Gorinsky, David G. Hartwell, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editors
Fiction, Anthology/Fantasy/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A painter of magic renders her embittered mentor's final portrait, an expectant mother uses breakthrough technology to visit her own unhappy childhood, alien bounty hunters seek a human criminal hiding among primitives, Doc Holliday escorts an unusual group to an otherworldly derelict outside of Tombstone... this anthology features these and more stories written by some of Tor's top names.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This freebie download is clearly intended as an enticement to explore the authors' works. Unfortunately, novelists don't always make the best short story authors. Many of these stories ramble on (and on), focusing on unpleasant characters in depressing situations who often do unlikeable things. I liked a few of the ideas, but only one or two of these short stories worked for me. The rest were quickly forgotten.

You Might Also Enjoy:
A Glory of Unicorns (Bruce Coville, editor) - My Review
The Dragon Book (Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, editors) - My Review
Flights of Fantasy (Mercedes Lackey, editor) - My Review

Saturday, November 30, 2013

November Site Update

The previous seven reviews are now archived and cross-linked at Brightdreamer Books.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (Fred White)

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
Fred White
Writer's Digest Books
Nonfiction, Writing
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: C. S. Lewis envisions a faun carrying packages through the snowy woods, and a classic series is born. Tolkien writes an irreverent sentence about a "hobbit," and begins his journey to Middle Earth. Ideas are all around us, but most pass unnoticed, and many of those we do see never seem to come to much. How does one recognize an idea's potential, and how can it be cultivated into successful articles, essays, or stories? Teacher and author Fred White offers tips and exercises for writers on idea generation and story planning.

REVIEW: I had a mixed reaction as I read this book. On one hand, White offers some good advice on brainstorming and crystallizing even the most nebulous sparks of inspiration. On the other, he seems almost obsessive about preparation work; not a single phase of the process can be accomplished without numerous worksheets and lists and research phases and expert interviews. I suspect that the professor in him shows here, as writing takes on the semblance of a class assignment, with clearly-defined progress points and worksheets for grading. While I understand the value of preparation, at some point the story itself must be written, and there seems little room for that here. There's also a fine line between preparation and organized procrastination; obsessively filling out lists and worksheets and exhaustively researching every little nuance before even writing the first draft can very easily cross that line. He mentions that some authors do fine with a more organic approach, but seems to fear spontaneous creativity himself, though he never quite comes out and says it. Then White goes on to suggest that authors should participate in National Novel Writing Month, possibly the epitome of spontaneous writing, which actively encourages exploring fresh ideas and going with the flow. The two approaches to writing do not seem compatible.
I learned some things here, and several of White's exercises are useful. His methods just seem stifling to me.

You Might Also Enjoy:
No Plot? No Problem! (Chris Baty) - My Review
Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass) - My Review
A Whack on the Side of the Head (Roger Van Oech) - My Review

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Time Keeper (Barbara Bartholomew)

The Time Keeper
(The Timeways trilogy, Book 1)
Barbara Bartholomew
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Sci-Fi
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Jeanette and her younger brother, Neil, have been struggling to adapt to a changing life. After their parents divorced, they stayed with their father in Dallas - which wasn't so bad, until he brought home his new wife (who insists Jean should be wearing dresses) and her perfect, pretty daughter (who stole the boy Jean's always had a crush on, and half the other boys at school besides.) Now her best friend Tina's nagging her about the old Lansden House, a derelict hotel slated for demolition. Surely an architect like her father has some pull with the city to save the place! Jean just can't care about old things or old buildings. Nothing can bring back the past, or change it.
Exploring the old hotel, Neil and Jean discover a hidden doorway to a cavern with six strange glowing stones, so well hidden that not even the demolition company knows about it. When Neil runs away from home, Jean follows him there... and watches him step on the stones and vanish into thin air! Jean follows, and finds herself in frontier Texas. Only something's not quite right - the real frontier never had unicorns, nor did it have two moons in an unfamiliar night sky. Somehow, Neil and Jean have fallen into another world - and their efforts to return home only get them more lost, in a future where time travel is the ultimate crime. All the while, the clock ticks down to the demolition of the Lansden House... and the destruction of their only chance to return to when and where they belong.

REVIEW: A Kindle reprint of an older title, The Time Keeper offers adventure, danger, and conflicted characters struggling to figure things out before it's too late. In other words, it's everything a good young adult book should be. Neil gets a little annoying now and again, though since Jean's the hero it's appropriate for the kid brother to be irritating. She makes a decent protagonist, figuring things out fairly well on her own without having to be repeatedly bashed over the head with clues. Despite having two boys with her, Jean's the one who has to get them out of trouble, a refreshing change from some stories (even adult ones.) Actually, most of the characters eventually pulled their own weight, even the minor ones. It starts a little slow, but picks up nicely, clipping along to an ending that offered more conclusion than I expected, while still leading into future books. I lost an entire afternoon to it, meaning to put the Kindle down after just one more chapter. Considering that it was first published in the 1980's, it holds up pretty well. Hopefully, the next two books are also slated for eBook re-release, or I'll have to try my luck with the library.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Found (Margaret Peterson Haddix) - My Review
Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglima) - My Review
The Watchers series (Peter Lerangis) - My Review

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Self Discipline NOW (William Wyatt)

Self Discipline NOW
William Wyatt
Amazon Digital Services
Nonfiction, Self-Help
** (Bad)

DESCRIPTION: Most people have dreams or goals, but many fail to achieve them. Developing self-discipline is necessary for success. Learn 10 proven steps that will transform your life in this eBook.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I wasn't expecting much when I downloaded this short title as a freebie, but even then I was disappointed. Most of it restates the obvious, and the rest fails to provide what the description promises. It also was likely outsourced to a non-English speaker; the words are recognizable, but the grammar is often confusing and occasionally downright impenetrable. Even as a freebie, it wasn't worth the cost.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Mental FOCUS Training Secrets (Nathan Cadbury) - My Review
Simple But Effective Strategies to Improve Yourself (Robert Eastwood) - My Review
The Motivation Myth (Mattison Grey and Jonathan Manske) - My Review

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dracula (Bram Stoker)

Bram Stoker
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Fantasy/Horror
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Englishman Jonathan Harker traveled to Transylvania to meet a client, who had recently purchased property in London. It was a prestigious opportunity for a young solicitor like himself, an auspicious sign for his career and his impending marriage to the lovely Mina. But, deep in the Carpathian mountains, he instead discovers a terror beyond any Christian imagination... a terror bound for his own homeland, against which he stands powerless.

REVIEW: Considered the seminal vampire novel, Dracula creates one of the most terrifying and powerful agents of evil in English literature... and almost smothers him it a stifling, plodding plot that can't advance one step without numerous speeches and brooding internal monologues. Not a single character in this book can do anything without weaving a web of words to explain themselves, often repeating information that was just relayed in the previous chapter. Despite being educated and intelligent people (even the women), they take a long time figuring out that evil is afoot... not helped by Professor Van Helsing, the expert, who deliberately withholds information even as he demands assistance in seemingly insane tasks. (When he asks a man to help him desecrate the corpse of a woman he once proposed marriage to, and still won't explain himself, I actually groaned out loud.) Even when everyone's up to speed on vampires, they continue to ignore obvious signs of diabolical influences within their circle. These people are too smart to be this stupid, even to further the plot.
Through the haze of words and repetition, Stoker creates some memorable mental images amid an evocative, gloomy atmosphere. Dracula makes a particularly scary monster, elusive and cunning and resourceful, yet capable of a disarming charisma that lulls victims into his power. I was surprised to find some vampiric traits that I'd taken to be more modern - the sensuality, for instance - already present in this 1897 book. Other abilities and limitations seemed more nebulous, if partially explained by Dracula's own ignorance; one of the more terrifying aspects of the character was how he was still learning and adapting after centuries of undeath. It made him all the more dangerous and unpredictable, even to supposed experts like Van Helsing. If Mina was ultimately more of a symbol of divine perfection than a character, and if the superiority of white Christians grew nauseating by the end, well, I suppose those are just signs of the times in which the story was written.
In the end, I managed to come out with an Okay rating. While Dracula is an iconic monster, the wordy repetition and slow, jerky storyline held it back.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Casting Shadows (J. Kelley Anderson) - My Review
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury) - My Review
Rough Draft (Michael Robertson Jr) - My Review

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fifty-One Tales (Lord Dunsany)

Fifty-One Tales
Lord Dunsany
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: The call of the Muses haunts a man, a pair of strangers ask the way to Stonehenge, a man entertains an invisible dinner guest, a worker's ghost returns to visit a poet who witnessed his death, the true story of the Tortoise and the Hare... these and more vignettes play out in a collection of short stories by the famed Irish author Lord Dunsany.

REVIEW: With a poetic voice that doesn't strive to alienate (unlike some older works I've read), Dunsany's tales are more like vignettes than short stories, brief glimpses of imagery and emotion that suggest larger tales. Many are only one page long, so even the most confusing story never overstays its welcome. Not all of them made sense, but the dreamlike nature and hints of wit carried these stories along. There are common themes running through many of them, which occasionally grew tedious, but I've read far worse, with far less subtle Messages. After clawing through E. M. Forster's dense prose, I gave Dunsany the benefit of the doubt with a solid Good rating. (At the very least, unlike Forster, I can see myself tackling more of Dunsany's works in the future.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Odds are Good (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Anything Box (Zenna Henderson) - My Review

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dracopedia: The Great Dragons (William O'Connor)

Dracopedia: The Great Dragons
William O'Connor
Nonfiction, Art
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: Since prehistory, the great dragons of the world have inspired fear and awe in humans. Today's populations may be threatened by poaching, pollution, and habitat destruction, but they still endure among us. From the white Icelandic dragons to the critically endangered gray Ligurians of the Mediterranean, from the misty coasts of the Pacific Northwest to the polluted lakes and rivers of mainland China, conservationists struggle to ensure that the world's great dragons will be with us for generations to come. Famed artist William O'Connor and his intrepid assistant, Conseil, set out on a trek around the world to observe and sketch all eight surviving species in their natural habitats.

REVIEW: Much like the first Dracopedia, O'Connor blends a vivid imagination with artistic skills, creating eight wonderfully realized species of dragon while offering artistic instruction. He focuses on digital media, with many tips on using Photoshop and related software for maximum effect - and how to avoid the sterile, "plastic" look of digital art; his final images look like true traditional paintings, demonstrating the versatility and power of modern media in the hands of an experienced artist. The art instruction often takes a back seat to O'Connor's invented dragons, though, and his accompanying art walkthroughs gloss over several steps. This is not a book for rank beginners, in other words, but for artists with some basic knowledge and skill to work with. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. Even non-artistic dracophiles should be able to appreciate this book.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Explorer's Guide to Drawing Fantasy Creatures (Emily Fiegenschuh) - My Review
Dracopedia (William O'Connor) - My Review
DragonArt (J. "NeonDragon" Peffer) - My Review

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chester (Mélanie Watt)

Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, a little mouse lived in the country - at least, until the author's cat Chester got his paws on the story. It's writer versus pet in the battle for creative control.

REVIEW: Anyone who has ever tried to do anything around a pushy pet can relate to this story. It's even worse when that pet has a red marker and an ego the size of an unabridged encyclopedia set. Fun, though for some reason I found the sequel (Chester's Back!) a little more amusing.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Never Let Your Cat Make Lunch For You (Lee Harris) - My Review
The Devious Book for Cats (Fluffy and Bonkers) - My Review
Chester's Back! (Mélanie Watt) - My Review

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

October Site Update

I've archived and cross-linked the previous eight reviews at Brightdreamer Books.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Nick of Time (Ted Bell)

Nick of Time
(The Nick McIver Time Adventures series, Book 1)
Ted Bell
Square Fish
Fiction, YA Adventure/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Young Nick McIver may be the best sailor on Greybeard Island; who else, after all, has successfully mapped the deadly reefs off Gravestone Rock? Sailing runs in his blood, as McIvers have served in the British Navy since before the days of Lord Nelson. Living in the lighthouse with his family, sailing the rough seas, exploring the many nooks and crannies of the shoreline... his life couldn't get any better! But it may just take a turn for the worse.
It's 1939, and though the Prime Minister assures the public that the brewing troubles in Europe are none of their concern, Nick's father and other patriots keep a sharp eye on the waters. Despite wartime treaties, the Nazis are developing new, powerful submarines, many of which have a suspicious obsession with the English channel. It all sounds very exciting to Nick, a chance to try his hand at becoming a hero like the men and boys in history books. But Nazis aren't the only trouble stalking the island. When Nick and his kid sister Katie discover a strange sea chest - one with his own name on it! - washed up in a hidden cove, a forbidding stranger soon appears. Billy Blood is a ruthless pirate, a traitor to his country and a merciless kidnapper. With a stolen time machine, he steals children throughout history, holding them for exorbitant ransoms aboard his blood-red ship. Even the reclusive Lord Hawke, the island's most unusual resident, has fallen victim to the monster. When Blood steals Nick's beloved dog, the boy sets out to find him - a journey that will take him into the heart of two wars, over a century apart.

REVIEW: Time travel, pirates, Nazis... this had all the makings of a great, rollicking adventure. Nick starts out as a resourceful, if impetuous, protagonist, and if his family and friends tended to fall neatly into genre stereotypes (the stoic but loving father, the worried mother, the precocious kid sister), well, that's not entirely unexpected in an old-school adventure yarn. But it takes nearly a third of the book to reach the time travel element promised by the cover, a delay involving lots of needless babbling and obvious Lesson-Inducing Blunders on the part of Nick. An awful lot of adults crowd the pages for a children's adventure, talking and explaining and generally eating page count, while the kids linger in the background waiting for their chance at heroism. There's a reason grown-ups usually have back seats in these stories; it becomes harder to suspend disbelief, that a kid will save the day, when too many competent adults are in on the action. Indeed, Nick and Katie's contributions stand out like sore thumbs, especially Katie, who - though not even seven years old - fools trained Nazi Gestapo agents with nary a misstep. Bell wrote a previous series about Hawke, which may explain why he and his right-hand man dominate so much of the story, but they crowded Nick out of his own adventure. The book also can't seem to decide on a definitive tone. One minute, it's trotting out silly stereotypes and eye-rolling efforts at jokes, the next it's callously and gruesomely picking off extras. It all snowballs into a jumbled mess by the end. It also seems to forget that a key element of the plot is a time machine - capable of targeting any time, and any place. Several tense situations could've been resolved with that little golden device.
Despite some good moments and a few memorable scenes - Nick's meeting with a longtime hero leaves him nearly speechless for more than one reason - the whole story felt too long and too unfocused to make for a satisfying read.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Bloody Jack (L. A. Meyer) - My Review
Ghost Ship (Dietlof Reiche) - My Review
Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) - My Review

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (E. M. Forster)

The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories
E. M. Forster
Public Domain Books
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: A boy discovers an omnibus into a world of poetic wonders, a man caught up in the race of life makes a startling discovery, an English boy on vacation abroad is touched by the pagan god of the wilderness... these and more tales await in this collection of short stories by the noted author E. M. Forster.

REVIEW: Once again, my general lack of education is showing. These stories, aimed quite clearly and directly at the upper-class English reader of yesteryear, raised on a classical education and steeped in generations of social constraints, by and large deride the human folly of those very social constraints and attempts to separate oneself from the wonders of the world by thinking true enlightenment can come from bookish education. Yet the literary backflips Forster employs, the obscure allusions and assumptions about the reader's body of knowledge, can only be fully appreciated by one raised in the traditional upper-class English manner. From my undereducated viewpoint, I found many of the stories lacking a point, aside from the sledgehammer-subtle Metaphors and admittedly poetic imagery. Like much higher literature, the story itself appears to be an afterthought, far less important than the play of words and interweaving of Themes. While I enjoyed a couple of the tales in this collection, overall I found them dull and repetitive.
On an unrelated note, looking at the past few reviews, I've come to the conclusion that I have no literary taste whatsoever, if these three books appear on the same reading list, on the same day.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Book of Dragons (Edith Nesbit) - My Review
The Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) - My Review
Masterpiece Theatre: Room With a View - Amazon DVD link

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude (Kevin O'Malley)

Once Upon a Cool Motorcycle Dude
Kevin O'Malley, illustrations by Kevin O'Malley, Carol Heyer, and Scott Goto
Walker Childrens
Fiction, YA Picture Book
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Once upon a time, a beautiful princess's beautiful ponies were being kidnapped by an evil meanie giant. Then a cool dude on a motorcycle showed up to save the day - or did he? When a brother and sister attempt to write a fairy tale together, things quickly get out of hand.

REVIEW: Another quick read during downtime at work, this has a fun concept. The girl's story starts out sickeningly sappy, the boy's tale counters with swords and volcanoes, but they manage to find common ground somewhere in the middle, learning that cooperation is more fun than competition. It wasn't bad, but the wrap-up lacked punch.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragon (Jody Bergsma) - My Review
The Knight and the Dragon (Tomie DePaola) - My Review
The Two Princesses of Bamarre (Gail Carson Levine) - My Review

Chester's Back (Mélanie Watt)

Chester's Back!
Mélanie Watt
Kids Can Press
Fiction, YA Picture Book
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: An author wants to write a story, but Chester the cat wants to call the shots. He's a star, after all, and demands to be treated as such. The author has other ideas, however...

REVIEW: It was a slow work week, and I found this on top of a bin. This fun little tale gleefully breaks the fourth wall, as Chester's demands (after his first book, Chester, which I've seen but not yet cornered to read) get more ostentatious - as do the author's rebuttals. It got a few chuckles out of me, and kept me entertained while waiting for things to pick up again.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Chloe and the Lion (Mac Barnett) - My Review
There Are Cats In This Book (Viviane Schwartz) - My Review
You're Finally Here! (Mélanie Watt) - My Review

Friday, October 11, 2013

Off to Be the Wizard (Scott Meyer)

Off to Be the Wizard
Scott Meyer
Rocket Hat Industries
Fiction, Sci-Fi
****+ (Good/Great)

DESCRIPTION: When twenty-something computer geek Martin stumbles across a data file that controls reality, he decides he'll play it smart, and just change a few things here and there in his life. Nothing fancy. Still, he figures he might as well have an escape plan, an emergency exit route to a time and place where his new, near-magical abilities won't get him prosecuted or burned at the stake. There's a nice, stable slice of time in medieval England that seems perfect, where a modern man could make a nice little life for himself if need be. But surely he won't need it. It's just his own life he's tweaking, after all. Nobody will ever notice.
He arrives in medieval England with little but his smartphone and the clothes on his back, escaping a pair of U.S. Treasury agents and a slew of cops. Martin figures he'll dazzle the natives and play wizard until things cool off at home... but he's not the first geek to have found reality's programming and fled into history, and they don't take kindly to newcomers blundering into their territory. He'll have to learn the ropes fast, because in a world of hacker wizards, revenge can be deadly.

REVIEW: This fun little outing, written by the creator of one of my favorite comic strips (Basic Instructions), reads like Douglas Adams Lite. It never takes itself too seriously, yet manages to craft an interesting, occasionally nuanced tale of hackers running amok through the programming of time, space, and reality. While some of the humor is geared for the computer geek crowd, it's plenty amusing for those of us with only passing familiarity with programming culture. I gave this book an extra half-mark for honoring the late, great Commodore, the best computer system nobody remembers, and for overall whimsy. Despite a few shaky bits, it's a delightful little romp from start to finish.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (Douglas Adams) - My Review
Galaxy Quest (Terry Bisson) - My Review
Help is On the Way: A Basic Instructions Collection (Scott Meyer) - My Review

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Surcease of Sorrow (Matt Inglima)

Surcease of Sorrow
Matt Inglima
Matt Inglima, publisher
Fiction, Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: In the early days of the Civil War, a man appears in the nation's capital. Nathan uses time travel to ease President Lincoln's sorrow by saving his son William from the disease that will soon claim his life. Averting the man's assassination would cause too many ripples in the space-time continuum, but surely this small act of mercy won't have greater consequences; before he left, Nathan ran the numbers many times. But in time, as in life, one can never know the outcome of even the smallest action, as Nathan is soon to discover.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: I had a very mixed reaction to this short story. While the writing itself is decent, telling a time-travel tale that hasn't been done to death, I was irked by Nathan's obsessive stupidity. This is a man who is a scientist in his own era, one privileged to work on a high-level project like time travel... yet, for all his research and presumed intelligence, he makes two dumb mistakes in his first hour in the past, and the crisis at the end could've easily been averted with a little forethought. I didn't care for the ending, but it has a certain measure of justification. It's not a bad little story, all in all.
(As a closing note, I hope the author redesigns the cover image; as it is, it's very hard to read.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Sky Coyote (Kage Baker) - My Review
Timeline (Michael Crichton) - My Review
The Time Machine (H. G. Wells) - My Review

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Tower (J. S. Frankel)

The Tower
J. S. Frankel
Untreed Reads
Fiction, YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Most thirteen-year-old boys don't think much about death, but Bill Lampkin has no choice; Death has been stalking him since he was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, the disease that took his mother when he was six. With his father hiding in a bottle, he spends his days surrounded by doctors and other sick children, with little but superhero comic books to ease his loneliness. At last, after a brief remission, Bill reaches the end... and makes his escape, determined to die on his own terms and not in a hospital bed. Instead of death, he finds a strange green door, and beyond - something impossible.
Bill wakes in another world, surrounded by superheroes straight from the pages of his comic books, albeit with slightly different costumes and names. This alternate Earth, while outwardly much like his own, has greatly advanced technology and even magic, not to mention the unexplained powers of the heroic Ultras. They even managed to knock out his leukemia, at least for the time being, though the process aged him several years. For a boy facing a lonely death, it's a dream come true, especially when the hot girl hero Oriana takes a liking to him. But all is not as it seems on the Tower, the orbital home base of the superhero Association. Even as Bill settles into his new life, he can't help wondering what's really going on. What does the Ultra leader, Avenger, really do all day? Why can't he find any information on their origins? And what happened to all the supervillians?
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This starts on a good note, with an atypical protagonist. Bill isn't the usual world-hopping hero, the Joe Average kid who stumbles into an adventure, but a dying and desperate boy. He isn't even a huge fan of superheroes; he only reads comics because they were all he had on hand, gifts from a less fortunate roommate. Suddenly faced with a future, one populated with impossible heroes no less, he struggles to adapt... and here the story bogs down, lingering far too long on Bill's efforts to find a place among the grunt-worker "normal" humans despite his unusually close relations with the Ultras, who usually keep to themselves. The novelty of the behind-the-scenes look at superhero life, the dynamics of the support crew and other extras glossed over in the comics and movies, wears thin quickly, especially with the tired plot mechanism of a dumb bully and his cronies who must be defeated before Bill can truly call the Tower home. By the time he finally starts getting back to his initial skepticism, questioning the too-perfect Ultras and trying to find answers, I'd grown more than a little antsy. The answers he uncovers, after plenty of wheel-spinning and brick-wall-hitting and second-guessing (Bill's relationship with the Ultra Oriana is threatened more than once by his obsession), stretch credulity nearly to the breaking point. A last-minute antagonist pops up to stretch out the climax, followed by another plot twist (which I'd guessed by the halfway point) and a drawn-out wrap-up that tries too hard to be profound... during which Bill sits down and explains to the reader how his adventures made him grow and change as a human being. I was there, Bill, remember?
I liked some of the ideas here, and there was a decent story at the heart of it. It just seemed overlong to me. The Kindle edition also could've used sharper proofreading; several quotation marks were missing or misplaced, as were paragraph breaks.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Forbidden Mind (Kimberly Kinrade) - My Review
Heroine Addiction (Jennifer Matarese) - My Review
The Incredibles (Widescreen Two-Disc Collector's Edition) - Amazon DVD link

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and the Utterly Screwed (Steff Metal)

The Good, The Bad, and the Utterly Screwed
Steff Metal
Grymm and Epic
Fiction, Collection/Fantasy/Horror
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: A mishap leads to a peculiar haunting... Antarctic researchers find something strange amid the penguin population... a man with a millennia-old bone to pick seeks Jesus with a handgun... a very unusual retiree moves into a small apartment... bad weather wakes more than the tourists at a remote New Zealand campground... Five bizarre tales await in this collection by Steff Metal, including an excerpt from the author's upcoming novel, At War With Satan.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: A fun little collection of twisted tales, it reads fast and, for the most part, satisfying. Once in a while the New Zealand slang grew a bit thick for my North American palate, but all in all I enjoyed it. I admit to skimming the novel excerpt - I'm not a fan of sales pitches - but what I read made it look like it could be fun, if not quite my cup of cocoa.

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Odds are Good (Bruce Coville) - My Review
The Anything Box (Zenna Henderson) - My Review
Flower of Scotland 3 (William Meikle) - My Review

Sunday, September 29, 2013

September Site Update

The previous nine book reviews are now archived and cross-linked on the main site.

I also rotated the site's Random Recommendations page.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Killing Dirty (Pete Clark)

Killing Dirty
(The Across the Barren Landscape series, Story 1)
Pete Clark
Fiction, Historical Fiction/Western
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: Aging gunfighter Jack Hemmingway rides into a forgotten dusthole of a town with a Colt on his hip, money in his pocket, and an invitation to a very special game that will make or break his fortune.
An eBook-exclusive title.

REVIEW: This freebie short story reads fast, with plenty of grit and gunsmoke. It lost a half-mark for the ending, which feels adrift; I know it's the first of a series, but I'd hoped for a little more closure. Still, overall it's not a bad little tale.

You Might Also Enjoy:
Frontier Earth (Bruce Boxleitner) - My Review
Goblintown Justice (Matt Forbeck) - My Review
Devil's Tower (Mark Sumner) - My Review

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kasey And His Dragon (E. H. White)

Kasey And His Dragon
E. H. White
Amazon Digital Services
Fiction, YA Fantasy
* (Terrible)

DESCRIPTION: Since Kasey's father disappeared, things have been rough for him and his mother. He works around the neighborhood to earn money, often with his best friend Alicia helping out, but it's never enough. Worse, due to a mix-up with his father's military paperwork, the Army is denying he even worked for them and is refusing benefits. Just when things seem worse than ever, Kasey discovers something strange in a neighbor's pond: a glittering diamond orb, from which a white dragon emerges. Kasey finds himself whisked away to the world of Onadida, seven galaxies away, enrolled in a magical school where children learn to work with animals magical and mundane. It's a wonderful place, made even better when Alicia arrives to find her own special animal friend, but all is not well here. The other children resent an offworlder getting the privilege of a white dragon; they have to study and compete hard for the few available dragons, and white dragons only occur once in a generation. Parts of Onadida also seem to be missing, a whole half of the rainbow, but nobody will tell Kasey or Alicia what happened. The boy soon finds his heart and his skills put to the test as dangers threaten his family, his new friends, and the entire planet of Onadida.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: Having just finished Kasey And His Dragon, I have two burning questions: what did I just read, and who thought it was ready to be published? It reads like the ill-advised offspring of Eragon and Pokemon, with a touch of Harry Potter, a dash of Dragonriders of Pern, and a metric ton of New Age energy jargon. Kasey's an empty shell of a protagonist, surrounded by friends and guides... and a host of nameless children who, despite existing on a planet that prides itself on its spiritual enlightenment, and despite having earned the privilege of great powers at this special school, behave like jealous jerks because the white dragon chose an Earthling over them. But, it's no wonder the dragon Halyn decided on him. The whole of the cosmos seems to exist solely to comfort and awe Kasey and teach him lessons on Healing and Enlightenment. Onadida is not so much a world as a Lesson made manifest, with less logic and cohesiveness than a three-year-old's crayon scribblings. Animals shrink and grow at will, depending on whether the author wants to rip off Eragon with a flight scene or Harry Potter with a magical classroom - oops, I suppose animals have to change size, if that pachyderm and the butterfly with the seven-foot wingspan are going to fit indoors. Similarly, miraculous devices materialize whenever the plot decides it's easier to just handwave away something than have the characters deal with it - which is most of the time. Need breakfast? Just wish for it. Want to explain why a teleporting dragon doesn't escape captivity? Um - there's "some sort of device" to prevent it. Don't ask why or how, there just is. (And, yes, the narrative does use the words "some sort of device.") People on Onadida can even materialize and dematerialize at will; I want to believe there's a reason for this, and not that the author just didn't know how to get people to show up or leave a scene otherwise. The story, such as it is, starts out cute, quickly grows threadbare, then just up and leaves the building in a hallucinatory mess of spiritual lessons before arriving at a climax that seems to have come from an entirely different draft, if not another story altogether. And then it ends, in a way that dropped the story to the rock-bottom rating.
I looked on Amazon, trying to determine if E. H. White is a teen or preteen who, while possessing a vivid imagination and admirable ambition, jumped the gun on going public with their work. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, unable to confirm my suspicions, I have to treat this story as I would any other book, by any other author.
(As a closing note, I enjoyed the cover art.)

You Might Also Enjoy:
Dragonsdale (Salamanda Drake) - My Review
The First Dragoneer (M. R. Mathias) - My Review
The Dragon Slayer with a Heavy Heart (Marcia Powers) - My Review

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stormsinger (Stephanie A. Cain)

Stephanie A. Cain
Stephanie Cain, publisher
Fiction, Fantasy
***+ (Okay/Good)

DESCRIPTION: The kingdom's best and most famous privateer, Captain Arama Dzornaea usually spends her days hunting enemy ships to bring glory (and treasure) to her liege. A quick jaunt to a neighboring kingdom with the crown prince, to deliver him to his betrothed, should scarcely test her mettle... not even with a stormwitch aboard to ensure a favorable breeze. But something extraordinary lurks in the depths, a force that quickly turns a routine sail into something far more dangerous.
A Kindle-exclusive title.

REVIEW: On the whole, this has some intriguing parts. Arama promises a colorful history, not just because of her storied relationship with the prince's general. The world itself, with sea monsters and strange magics and rival kingdoms, has potential. But in a story this short, that potential can scarcely be touched, let alone realized. I couldn't quite work out if this was a short story with too much baggage or a novel that ran out of steam, as Stormsinger seems adrift between the two possibilities. It earns an extra half-mark for having been apparently written in eight hours - given that time frame, it's remarkably polished - but I'm not sure it should've been published as it is; had Cain sat on it until she had a novel-length story to go with the novel-length ideas, she might've had something special on her hands.

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Ship of Magic (Robin Hobb) - My Review
Piratica (Tanith Lee) - My Review
Trading in Danger (Elizabeth Moon) - My Review